Spokeo v. Robins is both esoteric and important. Like a lot of Supreme Court opinions these days it seems like a compromise that will just increase confusion. In short, the scope of liability for state and local governments under a number of federal statutes remains uncertain.
The Court sent the case, involving whether Thomas Robins may sue a search engine under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) for providing inaccurate information about him, back to the lower court to determine whether Robins suffered a “concrete” harm and therefore had “standing” to sue.
While this case does not sound relevant to state and local government it is. A number of federal statutes applicable to state and local government—the Fair Housing Act (FHA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA)—allow plaintiffs to sue even if they have not necessarily been harmed. Regardless, to bring a lawsuit in federal court a plaintiff must have “standing” per Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Injury-in-fact—including a concrete harm—is one of the requirements for “standing.”
The FCRA requires consumer reporting agencies to “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy” of information used for employment purposes. Thomas Robins sued a “people search engine,” Spokoe, for willfully violating the FCRA by publishing inaccurate personal information about him. Spokoe described Robins as holding a graduate degree and being relatively affluent though neither are true.
The Ninth Circuit concluded that Robins had standing because he alleged that Spokeo violated his statutory rights, not just the rights of others, and Robins’s interests in how credit information is handled are individualized, not collective.
The Supreme Court concluded 6-2 in an opinion written by Justice Alito that the Ninth Circuit failed to determine whether Robins suffered a concrete harm. While injuries may be intangible and even just the risk of real harm can satisfy the concreteness requirement, just because a statute grants a person a right and purports to allow them to sue does not mean a person has been injured-in-fact. They must still have suffered a concrete harm. A bare procedural violation, divorced from any concrete harm (such as an incorrect zip code), will result in no concrete harm and will fail to provide the basis for “standing.”
The outcome of this case isn’t necessarily bad for state and local government. But a better outcome would have been the Court concluding that Robins suffered no concrete harm and had no standing to sue. Such an outcome would have meant that in fewer instances plaintiffs would have standing to sue state and local governments under the FHA, ADA, and DPPA.
This case may find its way back to the Supreme Court depending on how the Ninth Circuit applies the concreteness analysis the Court laid out in this opinion.